Accountability may not be a popular topic, but it is a biblical one. It is important for all believers, but perhaps especially for Christian leaders. This is because of the impact or influence that leaders can have on others. Their example is important, it can lead people closer to the Lord or drive them away. Because of this, it is important to consider this subject. Christians are part of a community, the body of Christ, and accountability is one of the ways in which we care for each other. This is true of both members of the congregation and their leaders.
The word accountability suggests a number of things. It conveys the idea that there is a standard that is to be maintained. It also implies that a person is answerable to someone greater than themselves. In addition, the word indicates that individuals have personal responsibility. Each person is responsible for who they are and what they do.
When it comes to Christian leaders, I think that there are three forms of accountability. First, the leader is accountable to God. Hebrews 13:17 speaks of Christian leaders having to give an account. Though God is not specifically mentioned in the verse, He is certainly the one that the writer means. Second, leaders are responsible to hold themselves accountable. When the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, he told him to keep a close watch on his life and teaching (1 Tim 4:16). This verse indicates that Christian leaders are to hold themselves accountable in these areas. And third, when necessary, leaders are called to help hold other leaders accountable. If a leader fails to uphold biblical standards, others should intervene and help them to do so. In the remainder of this article, we will focus on the last category of accountability, namely, leaders holding other leaders accountable. As we study this kind of accountability, we will be looking at four texts written by the apostle Paul.
In his letter to the churches in Galatia (Gal 1:2), Paul wrote about an incident that took place in Antioch. The apostle Peter had come to the church there (Gal 2:11). Even though he was a Jew he had been eating with the Gentiles (Gal 2:12). This changed, however, when some Jews came from James. After they arrived, he stopped eating with the Gentiles (Gal 2:12). The other Jews who were present, including Barnabas, followed Peter’s example (Gal 2:13). Paul saw that their actions were not consistent with the gospel so he publicly challenged Peter about this (Gal 2:14). It is interesting that Paul, an apostle, challenged Peter, and by implication Barnabas, who were both apostles, about this (Gal 1:8; Acts 14:4, 14). Within this apostolic group Peter had been an apostle for a longer period of time than Paul! Nonetheless, Paul held these leaders accountable for their behavior, which was inconsistent with the gospel (Gal 2:14). They preached the right message, but their behaviour did not support their message.
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul gave him instructions about the proper treatment of church elders. If the elders were living right and carrying out the ministry properly, they were to be treated honourably (1 Tim 5:17–18). However, if any of them sinned they were to be taken to task publicly (1 Tim 5:20). This may seem harsh, but Paul’s instructions are really a call to hold the leaders accountable. It is for their own good, and for the good of others. This public discipline is meant to correct them and serve as a warning to others (1 Tim 5:20). Errant elders are clearly identified as not living up to the standards that they should. What are these standards? Paul does not list them at this point in the text. However, some of them were listed earlier in the letter (1 Tim 3:1–7).
The two cases that we have looked at so far concern people who were being bad examples to others. The things they did were not the kind of things that God would want others to do. But that is only one area in which people need to be held accountable. Sometimes individuals need to be held accountable for what they do not do. They do not live up to their potential. Paul also dealt with situations like this.
In Colossians 4:17, Paul had a message for an individual by the name of Archippus, he urged this man to fulfil the work that God had given him to do. We don’t know a lot about this man. In the book of Philemon, the apostle refers to him as a “fellow soldier” (Phlm 2 NIV). These words may indicate that he was a fellow worker in the gospel. Paul knew this man and he also knew that he was not fulfilling the work that the Lord had given him to do. He did not let this situation go unaddressed; he called this man to take action regarding his shortcoming in this area. Sometimes leaders need to speak to other leaders about their ministry. They need to challenge them to do all they have been called to do.
In similar fashion, we find Paul calling upon his colleague, Timothy, to use his spiritual gift to the fullest degree (2 Tim 1:6). The message here was for him to use what he already had. Sometimes leaders today need similar encouragement. There are many situations in ministry that can wear a Christian leader down. At one time or another every leader needs another leader to remind them that they have been gifted by God to do the work they have been called to do. In view of this, they should not be discouraged or rely on their own abilities, instead, they should rely on God’s power and use the spiritual gifts He has given them to the fullest extent possible.
Holding leaders accountable is uncomfortable because it contains a measure of confrontation. It involves bringing up what may be a sensitive subject. This makes accountability uncomfortable both for the one who is confronted and the one who confronts. Because of this, sometimes we do not hold people accountable. This is not a good practice. Holding leaders accountable helps them and the people they serve. It is worth noting that in each of the cases we looked at, the leaders were held accountable within the context of a relationship. The same should be true today. A denominational official or pastoral colleague may be involved in this ministry. One who is compassionate may be particularly effective in this. Those who help others in this way should truly care for the person that they are speaking to. Though correction is involved, the biblical goal is to help, not hurt, the other person. When it goes well God is glorified, and His body, the church, is blessed.